In my previous post, Why Artists Defend Roman Polanki, I analyzed the flap over the Roman Polanski arrest as a case of artists arguing for a privilege to behave like shitheels without being held to account for it. I advanced this as an explanation because I think it covers the facts better than some of the culture-war political narratives being bandied about, especially by conservatives, but I deliberately did not take a position on the rights and wrongs of the arrest or whether I think Polanski should be prosecuted at this late date.
Now I’ll do so. I expect it will startle almost all of my regulars and offend a good many of them, but I think Polanki should be let go.
Yes, Polanski is a contemptible scumbag, and no, I don’t buy the notion that artists should be exempt from civilized standards of behavior, and no, I’m not basing my evaluation on some legal technicality or the rumors of judicial misprison around his 1977 trial. No; my position is that Polanski should be let go because that’s what Samantha Gailey says she wants — and, as the victim of his rape, hers is the only choice that I think should matter a damn.
If Gailey were calling for Polanski to be chemically castrated or executed, my position would be identical. In fact, if she were calling for him to be executed, I’d cheerfully shoot the bastard myself, and not be too concerned about sparing any of the slimy Hollywood apologists for him who might happen to be in the line of fire.
What I am specifically concerned to deny is that “society” has any legitimate interest in punishing Polanski. There are at least two dangerous fallacies in that theory, one implied by the word “society” and one bound up in our notions about punishment. It is really to address the first issue that I am writing this mini-essay; I’ll attack the second one some other time.
The problem with asserting that “society” has an interest in punishing Polanski is that “society” as people want to use it in claims like these doesn’t exist – it’s a semantic spook, a floating abstraction with no actual referent. Samantha Gailey exists; she’s a real person with a real grievance against Polanski. But no matter how hard you hunt for “society”, all you’ll ever find is individuals practicing ventriloquism – invoking the spook to justify what they want to do or think they have to do.
This is why there are no ethical claims in which the term “society” appears as a meaningful referent. You’ll find, if you try inventing some, that they fall into two categories: (a) disguised claims about the rights and duties of each and every individual in the society, or (b) vague and ominous nonsense.
This notion, that “society” actually exists as a sort of huge fictive person with rights, needs, and wants that are separate from and supersede those of individuals, is — and I’m choosing my words carefully here — evil and dangerous. It’s a way for power-seekers and parasites to cow others into submission, arrogating for themselves privileges nobody would grant them if they admitted wanting to meddle in order to gratify merely their own desires.
We’ve learned, painfully, over the last 400 years, that raisons d’etat is too dangerous and sweeping a pretext to let stand — that whenever you treat the authority of “government” as a solvent that trumps individual rights and claims, you are no more than a breath away from odious and grinding tyranny. The fictive personhood of “society” needs to be shot through the head for precisely the same reason.
That’s why I reject any argument that Polanski should be imprisoned after his victim has said she wants the matter dropped — because allowing anyone the privilege to coerce Polanski on behalf of “society” is a threat to everyone far more severe than one superannuated jailbait-jumper could ever be.